Even though Alabama’s Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail is one of the nation’s most desired golf venues, in the minds of many it isn’t quite family-friendly. After all, if dad wants to get out and play a few rounds in Orlando, Myrtle Beach or Scottsdale, to name just three examples, there are scads of other activities to keep the rest of the family, IE—the non-golfers, happy and entertained. But what of the non-golf opportunities along the Trail? It stretches through much of the length and breadth of Alabama, which isn’t quite at the forefront of many would-be vacationers when they think ‘tourist destination.’
It just so happens that there is plenty to do along the Trail, activities that will appeal to all members of the family, whether they’re interested in smacking the dimpled ball or not.
For example, a prior column extolled the virtues of playing The Shoals, in Muscle Shoals, with their Fighting Joe and Schoolmaster courses. But music lovers might be inclined to visit the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, located in nearby Tuscumbia. The state has a rich history of musicians who went on to worldwide acclaim, and the hall includes tributes to Tammy Wynette, Emmylou Harris, Hank Williams, Nat King Cole, Lionel Richie, the Temptations, the Commodores, and of course, Alabama, among other luminaries.
Highland Oaks is in Dothan, in the southeast corner of the state. They offer a trio of nine-hole courses, with a par-3 (also nine holes) thrown in for good measure. The Highlands is relatively open, with several lakes in play. The Marshwood is known for its notorious sixth hole, a mere 700 yards, and the 422-yard, par-4 ninth which includes a left-to-right dogleg and a tilted green elevated above a ribbon of wetlands. The Magnolia is well named, graced as it is by magnolia trees on high ground that is reached via a 1,000-foot wooden bridge spanning a marsh filled with lichen-dappled trees. Because the majority of the nation’s peanuts are grown within a hundred-or-so miles of Dothan, those so inclined might want to check out the National Peanut Festival, which is held each autumn. It’s a full ten days of agricultural displays, rides, games, amusements, concerts, and livestock showings.
Hampton Cove in Huntsville offers three championship courses. The Highlands is as close to a Scottish-style course as you’ll find on any Trail course, and features thousands of Japanese black pines, oaks, dogwoods and crepe myrtles. The River is the only Trail course without a single bunker. Laid out on former soybean fields in the flood plain of the Flint River basin, The River is a throwback to the simplistic way courses were built early in the previous century, with dirt pushed up to create the greens and tees. The course features massive oak trees, including an enormous, 250-year-old black oak behind the eighteenth green, reputed to be one of the oldest in the state. Meanwhile, the par-3 course on site is no pushover. Eleven of eighteen holes on the Short Course have water in play.
While big hitters can seemingly launch golf balls into orbit, the real deal is found nearby at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville. Famed rocket scientist Wernher von Braun and his team helped transform Huntsville from ‘the Watercress Capital of the World,’ as it was known in the 1950’s, to a leading edge technology center and research park. The U.S. Army donated land for this fascinating museum, and the U.S. Space & Rocket Center opened its doors in 1970. Since then, nearly seventeen million people have toured the Center. Many of the more than 650,000 annual visitors are school students on field trips, perhaps contemplating their future. Dozens of interactive exhibits encourage guest participation, prompting the oft-repeated motto: Here, everyone can be an astronaut for the day!
Grand National, close to Auburn, is one of the best-known Trail stops, and offers a trio of eighteen hole courses. The Links is the cornerstone of the Grand National complex, and the finishing hole is billed as the strongest concluding hole on the Trail. The drive must carry a corner of the lake while the approach is played to a shallow pedestal green shored up by boulders. The Lake course includes a dozen holes that hug the shoreline, and its 230-yard island green on the fifteenth is among the prettiest holes in the state. Keeping with the theme, more than half of the par-3 holes on their eighteen hole Short Course abut the lake. Be sure to check out the magnificent campus and famed Toomer’s Corner at nearby Auburn University, the ‘other’ major University in the state. (Alabama’s Crimson Tide attracts the lion’s share of the rooting interest, but the Auburn Tigers have no shortage of devotees themselves.)
From Prattville to Birmingham, Anniston to Auburn, Huntsville to Greenville to Dothan, the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail has resulted in huge swaths of underutilized acreage repurposed into these marvelous playing fields. And every stop on the Trail offers something intriguing, to see, to do, to experience, for golfers and non-golfers alike.